Don’t Judge a Book Writer By Her Day Job

If you know me in real life, and chances are that the five of you reading this blog do, you know I make my modest living as a freelance copy editor for a ragtag band of New York City-based magazines and book publishers. Today was a typical Monday: I dropped off some proofreading I did at home for Lapham’s Quarterly over the weekend, then went to the offices of The Nation (conveniently across the hall), then left early to head up to the midtown offices of People magazine, where I’ll be until 2 am.

The only connection between what I optimistically like to call my “clients”–which also include an architectural-products trade journal, and a fine-art photography publisher–is interpersonal. I knew somebody who knew somebody who worked there at one point, and they  needed someone to come in on a freelance basis for something or other. And there I’ve stayed.  It may not be the most financially lucrative arrangement, but short-term work does allow me to invest some mental energy in other things–for example, the book-related class I am teaching at Brooklyn Brainery tomorrow evening, after work at The Nation.

And although I usually keep all these jobs separate and don’t socialize much, I have been around long enough to notice that the people who work at magazines do not necessarily match the content, style, or reputation of the magazine they work for. I’ve never bought an issue of People, for example, but the staff and freelance copy editors there are some of the most hilarious, interesting, and least-celebrity-obsessed people I know.

So I was disappointed today when a new staff member at The Nation lived up–or rather down–to the stereotype of someone who works for The Nation. Mentioning I would have to leave early the next day occasioned an explanation of my book, and the new copy chief looked at the postcard I had printed with early blurbs on the back. “Oh, A.J. Jacobs, he blurbs everything, if you don’t get a blurb from him you wonder what’s wrong with you.” Actually, no, my publisher and I were really excited to get his endorsement. “And oh yeah, Andrei Codrescu, you’re going for the trifecta.” I’m not sure what trifecta he was talking about, but Codrescu sought me out after blind-judging a grant competition I won.

Then we had to talk about how I was leaving early today to go to People, something the other lovely copy editor there has long been friendly about, she used to work for Time-Life in the old days. I’ve made jokes to the effect of “At Nation I fill up my brain, and at People I empty it out.” But today when I mention that People is easygoing, most people there have been there thirty years, and he cuts me off. “I can’t imagine spending thirty years at People…although obviously, if they’re at People to begin with they can’t be looking for much more….” He trailed off.

Are you kidding me, I’m sitting right here and I just told you I wrote a book? My People co-workers threw me a champagne toast when it came out. (To be fair, the People copy dept. will take any excuse for a champagne toast, often with cake.) And I am only one of three members of the copy department who’ve published books. Others run record stores, appear in TV dramas, and go to chef school. What have you done lately in your off-hours, Mr. New Nation Guy?

Stop judging please. And thanks for listening to me rant.

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